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Forty years of the Butterball Turkey hotline

All of your vexing turkey questions answered.

Butterball has thrown a lifeline to home cooks since 1981, rescuing them from the brink of holiday meal disasters through its Turkey Talk-Line.

What began 40 years ago with six phone operators has evolved into a 50-plus person team that responds to poultry problems and other meal conundrums via phone (1-800-BUTTERBALL), text (1-844-877-3456), Amazon Alexa, and pretty much every social media platform, including — new this year — TikTok. The phone lines, which opened for the season on Nov. 1, will be in service through Dec. 25. Of course, there’s also the Butterball website, full of FAQs and even video tutorials.

Did you know that the self-dubbed “turkey tutors” undergo Butterball University training each October to save the rest of us from mealtime mortification on the biggest food holiday of the year? Or that the call center, based in Naperville, Illinois, went remote last year, due to the pandemic?

I gleaned that and more after chatting with talk-line veterans Nicole Johnson and Phyllis Kramer. They discussed what it takes to be a turkey professional and shared some of their most memorable crisis-aversion moments.

This year marks Johnson’s seventh season as director of the talk line, but she has been part of the team since 2001. Her inaugural year is testament to her dedication. She got married the Saturday before Thanksgiving, but postponed her honeymoon to field calls on the hotline.

“My friends and family always kid that, October, November and December, I am married to Butterball,” Johnson said.

So are the other turkey tutors. Turnover is so low that the average tenure is 16 years. “Historically, in order to get onto the talk line, it’s always been a word of mouth, referral or recommendation. We’ve never had to advertise, which is kind of neat,” Johnson said.

Like many on the team, Johnson is a dietitian by training. Yet, the experts also include culinary instructors, food scientists and chefs. All hold a bachelor’s degree; some have a master’s degree. Besides culinary acumen and communication skills (five are fluent in Spanish), these men and women are adept at hand-holding. The three core attributes that Butterball emphasizes among this cadre are patience, understanding and grace, known internally by the acronym PUG.

“People come to this job, and they just really enjoy it,” said Kramer, a retired home economics instructor now in her 19th season as a talk-line expert. “It’s like being a teacher in the best of times,” she said. “People are so gracious and thankful. They want to get this meal right. They don’t want any stress or problems. It’s nice, sometimes, to just talk it over with somebody.”

Gotta say, after reading the story and watching the embedded video, and speaking as a former helpdesk tech, being a Butterball Turkey hotline specialist sounds like a fun gig. I’m completely unqualified for it, of course, but it’s easy to see why the people who do this have done it for as long as they have. Hopefully, whatever you’re cooking this year does not require you to call for specialized help. Happy Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you tomorrow.

(Finding this story online, which I had read yesterday in the print version of the Chron, also led me to this story about the terrific Butterball hotline scene from The West Wing. Watch it again, it’s worth your time.)

UPDATE: This, too.

Thanksgiving video break: At least we still have old favorites

I think we can all agree that this is not the Thanksgiving we thought we were going to get when the year started. So let’s be thankful for the things we do have, like the comfort of the familiar.

I am thankful for my family, my health, my continued pleasure in doing this blog, and the people I have met along the way. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to immediate family to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The county will send an emergency cell phone alert to all residents urging them to get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as uncontrolled community spread has driven up new case and hospitalization numbers to a point higher than before Labor Day. Hidalgo and health officials fear a sustained surge like the one in June and July, which pushed Houston-area hospitals beyond their base ICU capacity.

“We reopened too soon,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen every indicator move in the wrong direction.”

Hidalgo’s requests is voluntary, since Gov. Greg Abbott in April stripped local officials of the ability to issue their own COVID-related restrictions. The governor rebuffed Hidalgo’s request in June for a new stay-at-home order; she warned during her annual State of the County remarks last week that new restrictions may be needed to combat this most recent wave of infections.

Before we get to the very well-known reasons why we should not be gathering in large quantities in our homes, let’s take a moment to consider this.

An estimated one out of every six Texans — roughly 4.75 million people — has contracted COVID-19, according to a recent statistical analysis by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The analysis estimates that the virus is spreading rapidly and so far has infected more than 16 percent of people in Texas, far more than the state’s tally.

“The speed at which things can get out of hand is a lot quicker than people expected,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the consortium.

The consortium’s statistical modeling uses cell phone data to measure mobility and state hospitalization levels to determine where the virus is spreading and how many people have been infected. It is not a perfect predictor of the virus’ spread, Fox cautioned, but it dovetails with state estimates.

The researchers’ approximation of 4.75 million cases is “generally in the ballpark” of what state health officials believe is the true number of infections, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which publishes the state’s official COVID-19 infection figures.

“It varies by condition, but we know and expect that all kinds of diseases are underreported,” Van Deusen said in an email.

In the Houston region, the UT consortium’s projections have worsened recently because of the growing number of new infections and hospitalizations. There’s a 76 percent chance the pandemic is growing here, according to the latest modeling, up from 47 percent on Friday. More than 1 million people — about 16 percent of Houston-area residents — have been infected with COVID-19, the UT researchers estimated.


The consortium estimated in October that there was at least an 80 percent chance the pandemic was growing in El Paso. That proved to be true. Cases and hospitalizations rose in that border city throughout late October and early November, overwhelming the local health care system. The model estimates that one in every three El Paso residents has contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The modeling also shows the potential danger of letting the virus run rampant to establish herd immunity — a strategy that some critics of lockdowns say is worth trying.

In order for herd immunity to work before a vaccine is ready, roughly 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, or more than 17 million people, Fox said. Given the demand on hospitals in Texas now, with an estimated 16 percent of the population infected or recovered, the health care system would be overwhelmed if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked.

“You can just think about what that would look like,” he said.

So there’s an excellent chance that someone at your Thanksgiving dinner has, or has had, COVID-19. If they are sick, they may not know it, which means they’re out there spreading it without realizing it. Why would you want to take the chance?

Look, the weather forecast for Thanksgiving is beautiful. If you want to celebrate outdoors, with family or friends in a socially-distant manner while masked when you’re not eating, you can reasonably do that. But don’t be part of the problem, and especially don’t be an asshole. Let’s all try to live long enough to be able to get vaccinated for this thing. The Trib has more.

Thanksgiving video break: I haven’t done one of these in awhile

So let’s redo one of my greater hits:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Thanksgiving video break: Comfort music

In times like these, we turn to old favorites for joy and solace:

Thanks for being there for us, Arlo. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Thanksgiving video break: It was like the turkeys mounted a counterattack

The greatest holiday TV episode ever. If you haven’t seen this before, you are in for a treat. And if you have seen it before, you know what I’m talking about:

I hope your Thanksgiving is better and less chaotic than that. Enjoy!

Friday video break: Black Friday

I have no idea why I haven’t used this on Black Friday before:

I love it when a band successfully reinterprets its own established work, as Steely Dan does here, turning the synth-driven tune into a slowed-down blues rocker. For a band that didn’t tour much in their early days, they’re an awesome live act. I’ve seen them twice now and would see them again tomorrow if they were in town. By the way, if you listened all the way to the end, here is their rendition of Dirty Work that Donald Fagan was introducing. Whether you’re at home, out shopping, or hard at work, I hope you have an excellent Black Friday.

Thanksgiving video break: I’ve done this often enough to call it a tradition

And what a tradition it is:

I plan to be in a turkey coma today, hopefully in front of a football game. Hope you have the Thanksgiving you want as well.

Friday random ten: Leftovers

In the spirit of the weekend, ten songs about food.

1. Hotdogs and Hamburgers – John Mellencamp
2. Watermelon Time – Marcia Ball
3. Col. Josh’s Homestyle Barbecue – Asylum Street Spankers
4. Ode To The Lima Bean – Flying Fish Sailors
5. Corn Dogs – The Bobs
6. Tastes Like Chicken – Austin Lounge Lizards
7. Too Much Barbecue – Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows
8. Junk Food – Patty Larkin
9. Hot Soup – Lager Rhythms
10. Belle Banana Pancakes – Jack Johnson

May your fridge and your belly be full.

Thanksgiving video break: Alice’s Restaurant

Needs no introduction, does it?

That was at Farm Aid 2005. Still sounds great, too. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

Where to eat if no one is cooking in your house

I figure most people are eating at home, or the home of a family member or friend, but if you’re not and you’re in Houston, has a list of restaurants that are open today. Some pretty fancy places in that list, actually, so if you were going to cook but had a catastrophic failure of some kind, you can still eat pretty well. Hope you and yours have a happy Thanksgiving no matter what your dining situation is. I’ll be back tomorrow.

The helium shortage gets real

It could affect Thanksgiving.

“We’ve secured helium to meet some of our parade needs, and we are working to secure more,” Kim Stoilis, president and chief executive officer of the Houston Festival Foundation, said in an email Wednesday. “We’re excited about this holiday tradition and our parade director assures me that all of our balloons will be flying high on Thanksgiving morning.”

But the full impact of the helium shortage on the parade remains unclear. Parade organizers declined to specify how much more helium is needed or whether the shortage would translate into fewer floats along this year’s parade route.

“Due to the severe shortage of helium and our continuing negotiations to procure the resource we’d rather not discuss specifics,” Stoilis stated in the email.


The Bureau of Land Management, which maintains much of the nation’s helium supply, held about 43 billion cubic feet (bcf) of helium in 1960, but today holds only 13 bcf because the nation’s supply has been privatized, said Joseph Peterson, assistant field manager of field resources at the bureau’s Amarillo office.

Under the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, the land management agency has been charged with selling off the remaining supply of helium on federal lands as private industry and overseas production plants take over the role of helium extraction, he said.

But today, Peterson said, the worldwide supply of helium has not kept pace with the demand.

“The past few years (the shortage) has been crucial because everyone wants the helium for their parades,” he said. “In the past there have been a couple of suppliers that were able to meet that demand. There is still some helium available but there may not be a lot of balloons in this year’s parades (nationwide).”

I wrote about this last year. It’s all fun and games until the parade floats start being affected.

Friday random ten: Black Friday edition

Today is Black Friday, the traditional start-of-the-Christmas-season holiday in which crazy people get up before the crack of dawn to have first dibs at discounted merchandise. I understand our neighborhood Target took things to the logical extreme and opened at midnight. How can I not celebrate this in song?

1. Black Friday – Steely Dan
2. Black Annie – Solas
3. Black Blade – Blue Oyster Cult
4. Black Coffee In Bed – Squeeze
5. Black Eye Blues – Asylum Street Spankers
6. Black Is The Color – SixMileBridge
7. Black Rain – Fastball
8. Black Horse and the Cherry Tree – KT Tunstall
9. Black Night – Deep Purple
10. Black Widow – Michelle Shocked

Happy day after Thanksgiving, y’all.

Beyond turducken

You’ve had turducken. You’ve had turbaconducken. Where do you go from there? How about the Quaducant, with Creole sausage? That’s just one of several options presented to you at that link. I may have to ask for that next year. This year, we’re having turkey enchiladas, made by my most excellent mother-in-law. Oh, and pie. There are some side dishes as well, but really, what more do you need to know? Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Saturday video break: Won’t I get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?

President Bartlett, doing his Constitutional duty:

There’s also the classic Butterball hotline sequence if you want more. Happy Saturday!

More stories about building food

After having turducken for your Thanksgiving dinner, how can you not have something like this for dessert?

A Los Angeles man named Charles Phoenix has created the turducken of Thanksgiving desserts and dubbed it the cherpumple.

Turduckens are pretty commonplace these days; the cherpumple decidedly is not. A cherpumple is a three-layer cake sporting an entire pie in each layer (spice cake holding an apple pie on the bottom layer, a pumpkin pie nestled in yellow cake in the middle and a top layer of cherry pie baked into white cake) iced with cream cheese frosting.

“When you slice and serve it,” Phoenix says in a video on his cherpumple-pumped site charles, “your company will be astonished.”


But one thing bothered me about this strange and clever creation. Who the heck eats cherry pie at Thanksgiving?

I thought I could best the cherpumple. And now I present to you the pumpecapple.

OK, maybe it doesn’t roll off the tongue, but the pumpecapple – my “improvement” on the cherpumple – better represents Thanksgiving flavors with layers of pumpkin, pecan and apple pies baked in cake. I also thought good pies and homemade cake batter (Phoenix used frozen pies and box cake mix) would make a crazy dessert idea palatable. Even delicious.

My first and only call was to Three Brothers Bakery on South Braeswood. (You think I’d make this thing myself, are you crazy?) Three Brothers immediately came to mind because the Houston bakery’s pecan pie recently was recently singled out by Country Living magazine as one of the best pies in the country.

Janice Jucker, one of the business’ owners along with her husband, Robert, immediately bit. Three Brothers was game, and they also suggested improving on the layers: Apple pie baked in a spice apple cake; chocolate pecan pie in a chocolate cake; pumpkin pie in a pumpkin spice cake. Robert did the baking, and decorator Heather Campbell did the icing (Janice did a lot of the encouraging and cheerleading).

Read the rest to see how it turned out. All I can say is OM NOM NOM, I so totally want to try either one of them. Maybe this can be the cake for my next birthday.

Special Thursday video break: It’s not the name of the restaurant, it’s the name of the song

You can get anything you want at you-know-where:

I did this last year and figured I’d do it again this year. Happy Thanksgiving!

Smoked beer can turkey

For those of you with an engineering bent and a large enough grill, I give you smoked beer can turkey, based on a popular grilling technique for chickens. Bon appetit!

Friday random ten: Thanks for giving

In honor of the holiday weekend, ten songs about thanking and giving.

1. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again) – Sly and the Family Stone
2. Thank You Girl – John Hiatt
3. Thank You Friends – Big Star
4. Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle – The Mountain Goats and Kaki King
5. Thanksgiving Song – Mary-Chapin Carpenter
6. The Thanksgiving Song – Adam Sandler
7. Give A Little Bit – Supertramp
8. Give It Up – Fishbone
9. Give Me The Love – The String Cheese Incident
10. Give Blood – Pete Townshend

You can be thankful you didn’t have to wrestle with any demonic lawn furniture for your Thanksgiving.

At least, I hope you didn’t have to do that. What songs are you thankful for this week?

Special Friday video break: As God is my witness…

I give you the 1970s precursor to “The Office”, the wonderful and underrated “WKRP In Cincinnati” and their all-time classic Thanksgiving episode. Seriously, if you’ve never seen this, you really need to watch it all the way through. If you have seen it, you don’t require my encouragement for that:

While Mr. Carlson’s iconic line about the turkeys at the end is what everyone remembers, I can’t really pick a single funniest moment in this. I’m giggling as I type this post. Time to watch it again, methinks.

Special Thursday video break: You can get anything you want

It’s not the name of the restaurant, it’s the name of the song:

I was hoping to find a video based on the original recording, but failed. Since I always manage to forget to turn on the radio in time to hear its annual airing, this will have to do. So walk on in, it’s around the back.

By the way, am I the last person in the world to realize you can’t buy just this song at the iTunes store? They make you buy the whole album to get it. Even more annoyingly, the album is listed at $9.99, while the other six songs can be bought for the usual 99 cents apiece, thus making this tune, at $3.94 for the balance, probably the most expensive single tune in the store. What a ripoff! Amazon has them beat on both counts, though I’m suspicious of the song’s shorter listed length. And the updated 30th anniversary edition, whose version I can recall hearing once on the radio, isn’t available as an MP3 download. Argh!

Ah, well. Happy Thanksgiving anyway.

For those of you who think turducken is too wimpy…

…I give you Turbaconducken. Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. If you click the link, you will either rush right out to buy several pounds of bacon, or you will become a vegetarian. If you’re already a vegetarian, for the love of God do not click the link. I cannot be held responsible if you do.

I linked to this last year, but after being reminded about it by Andria, I figured it deserved its own post. As it happens, we’re having turducken – the normal, old school, un-baconified kind – for our Thanksgiving dinner today. Tiffany picked it up on a whim, and I’m psyched about it. Anybody out there doing something a little different for T-Day? Leave a comment and let me know. And Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving travel

If you’re traveling this weekend, you’ll find the roads a bit more crowded than last year, but down from the norm.

Americans shaken by last year’s economic crash may be regaining enough confidence to hit the roads in higher numbers this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.

When a wobbly economy finally nose-dived last fall, Thanksgiving trips also plunged, by 25 percent from the year before, the travel association reports.

This year, with unemployment higher than it’s been since 1983 despite economic growth last quarter, 38.4 million Americans — one in eight — will travel 50 miles or more from home, up a slight 1.4 percent.

More here. Drive safe, y’all. Link via the On the Move blog.

Get well soon, Pancho Claus!

See you at the parade!

The Houston actor best known locally as Pancho Claus still plans to make his annual holiday appearance in the Thanksgiving Day parade despite suffering a heart attack last week.

Richard Reyes, who has portrayed the zoot suit-wearing, lowrider-cruising Hispanic icon for 28 years, said he was admitted to Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital on Thursday after suffering a heart attack. He was moved from intensive care to a regular room over the weekend and said he hoped to be released [Monday].

Despite his recent ordeal, Reyes said he sees no reason he can’t be in the downtown Houston parade as usual.

“All I’ve got to do is wave,” he joked in a phone interview from his hospital room.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without Pancho Claus. Good to see he’ll be all right.